Researchers may have uncovered the meaning behind a 3,200-year-old series of more than 90 rock-cut reliefs at Yazilikaya Rock Temple in central Turkey. According to a new study published last week in the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology, these elaborate limestone carvings of gods, monsters, and animals provide insight into the way the people of the millennia-old Hittite kingdom understood the cosmos. The temple was discovered by French archaeologist and historian Charles Texier around 1834, and it has taken almost 200 years to decipher the reliefs.
The Hittites ruled Anatolia from 1680 B.C.E. to 1178 B.C.E. The Yazilikaya rock sanctuary can be accessed on foot from the empire’s capital, Hattusa, and would have been an important religious site. The open-air shrine functioned as an extension of the city’s sacred power. It “formed a knot tying the country to the sky,” a team of researchers led by E. C. Krupp and Eberhard Zangger write in their study.
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The study proposes that the Hittite people considered the universe as a multilayered system composed of three levels or realms—earth (the surface world), sky (the celestial world), and the subterranean underworld. The sanctuary may represent the cosmos as envisioned by the Hittites, as well as the layout of the entire Yazilikaya complex.
Much of the study revolves around two portions of the rock sanctuary that are labeled Chamber A and Chamber B. Chamber A, which represents the earth and sky, is flanked by two walls, each bearing a row of carved figures that may depict lesser deities marching in a processional toward a main relief featuring the storm god Teššub, his wife the mother goddess Ḫebat, and their son, the mountain god Šarruma.
Because this panel is due north, the authors of the study believe it is aligned with the celestial circumpolar zone and the eternal stars, such as the North Star, which never set below the horizon. “We suggest that Chamber A as a whole can be viewed as symbolising everything on Earth and in heaven, including the Sun, the Moon, the five visible planets, some constellations and stars, the north celestial pole, and the northern circumpolar realm,” the researcher explain.
Bordered by towering rock walls, Chamber B may represent the underworld. Lion-headed demons are shown guarding the entrance to the chamber. A main relief features the 12 gods of the underworld, each carrying sickle-shaped swords. There is also an imposing 11-foot-high relief depicting Nergal, who presides over the underworld.
The entrance to the underworld at Chamber B was once marked with an artificial water pipe. In Hittite culture, water symbolized a passageway, and excavations have revealed the remains of bird bones, “possibly indicating specific sacrificial rituals of the underworld,” the study suggests.
This chamber depicts death—though the passing it represents is not a permanent one. Instead, the entire cosmic worldview incorporates elements of death and rebirth, night and day, moon and sun, and the cyclical processes of nature including the seasons.
Yazilikaya was not only a cosmological map, but also a sophisticated astronomical calendar—a kind of observatory used for measuring time by the motion of the stars. It was so accurate, it could determine “a specific hour in a particular month to within a precision of about 10 minutes,” the researchers explain.
But the researchers are careful to note the true role of this sacred place: “Observatories neither require nor invite audiences … Both major chambers of the sanctuary were, above all, ritual spaces that were used as a stage for important ceremonial activity.”